Really 'Must-See' TV

THERE has been an extraordinary new intrusion in public places over the past few months - unwanted television.

I first became aware of this trend while waiting for a plane at O'Hare Airport in Chicago. Next, while sitting in the waiting room of a doctor here at a local HMO clinic.

In both cases, loud and just out of reach, was a TV set turned on and carrying a version of CNN repackaged for a) airports and b) medical waiting rooms. In the first instance, I didn't want television because I needed the space for thinking. In the second, I wanted to do some reading.

I have had troubling thoughts about the arrival of force-fed television in public places. The first one is that no one asked me if I wanted or needed a news update with commercials at this time. Women get upset over unwanted attention. This was unwanted TV. An infringement of my right to be left alone.

Had the O'Hare people asked me if there were any needed public amenities I might want, I would have suggested earphones for anyone interested in TV while they waited and a TV-free zone for those who weren't. But they didn't ask.

Had the clinic asked, I might have suggested a review of medical ethics about the propriety of pitching goods to a captive audience with health concerns on their minds. No one asked if we might prefer silence. There was an assumption that TV news and commercials are as much a fixture in our lives as the air we were trying to breathe.

I am not required to select one of the magazines on the side table. Reading matter in a public place carries an in-built presumption of choice. A switched-on TV set does not.

At my home, our most sacred and most personal space, we don't take our television by the hour or the pound. We pick it selectively by program. Then when it's over, we turn it off. But with TV-while-you're-waiting, the switch is out of my reach. Another personal protection has gone down the tube.

Unbidden, "1984" came to mind. George Orwell's tele-state monitored its citizens with two-way sets fixed to the walls that they couldn't turn off. Ted Turner is no Big Brother. At least, not yet. But the set is now affixed to the wall. And we're told that "interactive" television is nearly here.

The Fourth Amendment gives me the right not to have the sanctity of my home unreasonably violated. If a peddler knocks at the door, and I am not interested, I can safely advise him to leave. But at the airport and the doctor's office, the Constitution gives way to the view that it's acceptable to shanghai me on an unwanted journey through a clutter of 30-second commercials when I am not receptive. At the clinic, I noticed that no one was watching the set, so I asked the receptionist politely if we could turn it off. She suggested that I move elsewhere. I took a magazine.

The large number of airports and doctors' offices that have installed television-to-wait-by presumably receive some financial or material consideration for it from CNN. So do schools that take Channel One news each morning from another producer, with two minutes of commercials built in. The schools agree in exchange for free equipment to show the newscast and not to excuse students from watching. A new venture pipes pop music with commercials into school hallways to catch the young between classes. Ad slogans accost me from people's T-shirts, running shoes, and luggage. Enticing manufactured aromas are wafted to my nostrils by circulating fans from chic boutiques, candy emporia, and restaurants.

It appears that what we're getting more closely resembles an Advertising Revolution than an Information Revolution. We'd all best check our premises.

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